For composers, is video game music the new folk music?

by Ricky O'Bannon, Special to MPR
February 26, 2014

As generations of kids who grew up playing video games mature and become a market force, some composers are looking to give game soundtracks the full symphonic treatment — in the same way composers before them sought to elevate and validate folk tunes.

The Classical era (about 1730-1820) was driven by a mostly unified "continental" style. Dominated by German and Austrian composers, classical musicians from America, France, and Russia strived to fit into this sound, mostly devoid of regional quirks and color. As nationalism swept 19th century Europe, Romantic composers turned to the folk music of their home countries as inspiration.

The Romantics, writing for new middle-class ticket-buyers and not aristocratic patrons, wanted their work to bear the musical DNA of their home countries. Using regional folk music as a melodic starting point and then building upon those tunes using the vocabulary of classical music — development, harmony, orchestrations — had two effects. It both lured middle-class audiences who once saw classical music as not written for them and also publicly declared that, say, Hungarian or Czech music had just as much "high art" value as what had long come out of Germany.

A little behind European nationalism, American composers like Aaron Copland or the often-overlooked William Grant Still would make similar declarations about their folk music heritage in the early 20th century.

In the 21st century, our lives have been hyper-saturated by recorded music — so much so that folk tunes, usually passed down by oral tradition, no longer hold as significant place in our shared musical vocabulary. For subcultures like that of video gamers, though, other music can take on that role — and in many cases this is being recognized by the world of classical music.

Like traditional folk tunes, early video game music was simple, short and melody-driven. Also like folk tunes, it holds vast associative value for the gamers who grew up listening to it. In many cases, listeners have spent dozens if not hundreds of hours with a single soundtrack. Take, for example, the Gerudo Valley theme from the 1998 Zelda: Ocarina of Time, by Koji Kondo.

The tune is one of many popular themes from the Zelda franchise, but musically, a compelling melody suffers from technical recording limitations and the nasal MIDI trumpets that come with it. Still, a YouTube search for this theme turns up endless fan covers and remixes ranging from a capella to guitar duet to dubstep.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the franchise in 2011, a fully orchestrated 45-minute symphony built from the games' popular tunes — including the Gerudo Valley theme — was performed in a series of worldwide concerts.

The symphony is one of many orchestral takes on older game music in recent years, and in many cases, composers are approaching the game scores in the same way composers do folk tunes. Conductor and arranger Andrew Skeet led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in their 2011 Greatest Video Game Music album.

"There are quite a few pieces on this album where I treat [the tunes] like Vaughan Williams would treat folk music," Skeet said in an interview with Classic FM. "I literally take eight little tunes from Sonic the Hedgehog [...] and I make a suite or a tone poem from it."

As with folk tunes in classical music, game tracks can lure new audiences to concert halls with a declaration that this music has value and works in what might be an otherwise daunting symphonic setting. Greatest Video Game Music and its sequel both placed on the Billboard Top 100 charts — a rarity for orchestral albums — and video game orchestral concerts continue to draw audiences.

Orchestrating video game themes into symphonic pieces is a continuation of a well-worn classical tradition, and it may just offer some relief to the financially uncertain classical world — that is, if orchestras don't mind their audiences showing up in full costume.

Ricky O'Bannon is a freelance music journalist living in Los Angeles.


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